As of today, the European Innovation Council (EIC) has a new President of the Board, Dr Michiel Scheffer. With a budget of €10 billion, the EIC aims to identify and scale up new technologies and scientific breakthroughs. In an interview with Horizon magazine, Scheffer looks at the task ahead, where he feels innovation in Europe is strong and where there is a need to do better.
By TOM CASSAUWERS
Michiel Scheffer is hardly new to the world of innovation. For 15 years the Dutch national ran an innovation consultancy for fashion and textile companies. And on top of that he served as regional minister in the Dutch province of Gelderland. Now, Scheffer says he’s eager to start his new job in Brussels as president of the EIC Board.
Which of your previous jobs – in academia, industry or politics – best prepared you for the job of EIC president?
Surprisingly, my political responsibilities probably best prepared me. The challenges I encountered there are similar to the ones I will face now. Of course, it’s important to know how academic research works and how startups operate. But politics is what best prepared me.
I used to be a minister for the Dutch province of Gelderland. Fifteen years ago, it sold some government companies, which caused the province to have money. I led the fund that invested this money. I invested €600 million in startups and scaleups, and I’m proud of the work we did there. That’s a smaller version of what I’m about to experience with the EIC.
What about your work as an entrepreneur?
I was born into a textile family. It’s already in my DNA for three generations. As an entrepreneur I helped textile companies in their innovation processes. But I also tried to develop my own technologies through startups. I need to note, though, that all those startup projects failed.
What did you learn from failing?
For one, I myself experienced the problems that startups encounter. You need to have capital that’s patient. At a certain stage you need to scale a technology, which can cost millions of euros. That means you need good sources of capital, which is where some ideas fail. I hope the EIC can help fix this.
A startup also needs to see Europe as its starting market. We cannot just see our nations or regions as our only markets. You need Europe to build a company at scale.
Your focus as a consultant was on the textile and fashion industries. What lessons did you learn from them?
Fashion is a very innovative industry. Every season they need to come up with new ideas and recombine concepts. Which surprisingly is a very useful mindset for European deep-tech innovation, because crossover thinking is key here. Often you combine different fields or industries. For example, new materials are used to build medical technologies. And that’s what the European innovation ecosystem does well. Everything is close to each other.
In the US, Silicon Valley is geographically very far away from, say the Research Triangle [an area in North Carolina with a heavy focus on medical industries]. In Europe we’re better at this cross-sector innovation, something I’m quite familiar with because of my experience in fashion.
What do you think about the so-called European Innovation Paradox, the idea that Europe is a world leader in science and research but that we’re not good at turning this knowledge into startups and economic activity?
The paradox exists, but it’s not an unchangeable reality. There are regions in Europe that have managed to bridge that paradox. They have managed to invest funds correctly and create a network of startups. I’m thinking of cities such as Eindhoven, Grenoble or Tallinn. On a regional level there are success stories.
The US and China, the other two big economic blocs, have much more coherent internal markets and a strong government. Europe has potential, but fundamentally it’s still 27 different member countries. There’s, of course, the single market but, particularly for startups, financing options remain fragmented. The EIC wants to create a single market for venture capital.
What about private investors? Aren’t you pushing them out?
We work by “crowding in” and never go at it alone. When we give equity, we only invest when private investors join us. We want to seduce private venture capitalists (VCs), not compete with them. Public investors de-risk a lot of the work of private VCs. They make a selection and do due diligence, which reduces the work a private investor needs to do. Research shows that companies where public and private investors work together have a higher chance of survival than companies who just get private investment.
Does an EU fund really need to do equity investments?
In every major technological transition of the last 400 years, public investment has played a big role. This can be in the form of equity, or government contracting. You, of course, need to be prudent, but history shows that it works. After the last few neoliberal decades, it might be somewhat new for governments to do equity investments again, but in the long term it’s perfectly normal for us to do this.
On the other hand, do you think private VCs are too risk averse in Europe?
This can happen, but there are plenty of private VCs that take risks. The bigger problem in Europe is that institutional investors, such as pension funds or even family offices [funds that manage and invest the money of wealthy families], invest too little in VCs. The challenge is more to have these bigger funds invest a larger share of their capital into VC, which in turn will give a boost to European startups.
As someone with a PhD, how can we stimulate scientists to also take up entrepreneurship?
We need to stimulate entrepreneurship among scientists. There aren’t enough places for all PhD students at universities. Besides, there are a lot of PhD students who prefer entrepreneurship over academia. That was also the case for me 30 ago. That of course doesn’t mean that entrepreneurship is just something for scientists.
The most successful companies are led by diverse teams. You want to mix scientists with more commercially driven people. This diversity, by the way, should also extend to gender. We see that entrepreneurial teams that also include women are more successful than teams just composed of men. Cross-border entrepreneurial teams also are more successful. Entrepreneurship isn’t about one lone genius, but about diverse teams.
There are suggestions that a recession might be setting in. What role does the EIC need to play in this kind of funding environment?
The EIC needs to work as patient capital. We have a commitment to invest in the long-term. The instrument also needs to exist for a long time. We hope that the Member States will keep supporting it in the next work programme, after 2027. We are faced with very long-term technological transitions, for example, in the area of sustainability, that go up to and beyond 2050. We need financial instruments that can think on these long-term horizons.
As the new president of the EIC, what will be your first actions?
Some regional innovation ecosystems work very well already, yet others are still lacking. I want to spend a lot of attention on countries and regions that need some help. One of my main activities would be to visit different ecosystems. In July, I start with Portugal, which has a very good technological ecosystem. But afterwards I would also like to visit Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia and Poland. This is called ‘widening’. We let these regions learn from other success stories, like imec in Leuven, Belgium, or Enterprise Ireland in Ireland.
We also need to steer investments into areas that are strategically important to Europe. One of the strong points of Europe is, for example, agriculture. We should explore opportunities for it to supply us with certain materials or resources used in chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
Farmers could for example supply lactic acid from sugar, which can be used to make plastics. Bio-based industries such as agriculture can in this way be coupled to our search for more autonomy in strategic economic areas.
What tips do you have for prospective entrepreneurs?
An entrepreneur needs critical friends. You need to learn how to tell your story and listen to criticism. Good entrepreneurs also never work alone. Try to join a team, and make it diverse.
A NEW EUROPEAN INNOVATION AGENDA AND THE EIC
A new wave of innovation is underway: deep-tech innovation, rooted in cutting-edge science, technology and engineering, often combining advances in the physical, biological and digital spheres with the potential to deliver solutions to the many global challenges we face.
With the new European innovation agenda, the EU is putting forward concrete new measures to help innovators, including deep-tech startups, to succeed in bringing their innovations to market.
The European Innovation Council (EIC) supports the most promising deep-tech startups in Europe with scaling up their breakthrough innovations through the EIC Fund, a combination of public grant and patient equity investment. The Fund is set to become the largest early stage, deep-tech investor in Europe: leveraging a budget of €10 billion for the EIC to crowd in €30 to €50 billion from other private investors.
This interview was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.